“Stop telling such outlandish tales. Stop turning minnows into whales.” ~ Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
“I know that this queer adventure of the Gay-Header’s will be sure to seem incredible to some landsmen…” ~ Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Introduction—The Gay American Novel
Call me (a) Dick.
But Moby-Dick, the Great American Novel by Herman Melville, is the gayest book I’ve ever read since Harry’s Peter and his “Chamber” of Secrets.*
Having said that, I should add at the outset that Amorphous Intelligence Ltd., LLC, N.A., LLD (and all its affiliates, subsidiaries, entities, and personnel, etc.; hereinafter just “AI”) is not anti-gay.
And having said that, on the flipside, AI is not, in full disclosure, personally gay.**
Let me clarify:
By “gay,” I don’t mean, as today’s youngsters do, lame (though AI is not that, either). Nor do I mean, as my grandparents’ generation did, merry. Nay, I’m sort of the “in-between” generation where that word not too long ago, according to a slightly older-edition Merriam-Webster’s, meant:
2gay (noun) \’gā\: HOMOSEXUAL; especially, a homosexual male…who uses his Moby Dick as a harpoon to thrust into the blowhole of another cetacean bull while shouting ‘Thar she blows!’ as he simultaneously ejaculates his pod of sperm whales
Examples of GAY
- A bar that is frequented by gays
- All the characters in the 1851 novel Moby-Dick are gay
Which pretty much sums up all 800-plus pages and 135 or so chapters of this loooooooooooooooooooonnnnnng…ooooooold…thick…saggy…hairy…book….
Okay, I made up the saggy and hairy bits. But it is, in fact, a book. And it’s a touch more than long, old, and thick (which are also, in fact, factual).
*Note: not by J.K. Rowling.
**If you’re gay and reading this, what is about to transpire is probably old news. For us straight “landsmen”, however, this is new news that, in Melville’s words, “will be sure to seem incredible.” So please forgive us if, from our biased heterosexual perspective, we act a little childish.
Part 1—Of Sharks and Whales and Large Minnow Tales
Truth be told, I was pleasantly surprised when I recently read this book. It’s not all just about a senile, monomaniacal curmudgeon named Ahab who mutters questionable phrases (that in my mind sound like Jimmy Stewart), “…I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold…” while coincidently having a not-so-good grip on pretty much anything—including a large, powerful, throbbing leviathan from below as it slips through his fierce grasp like a…uh…a lubed-up red spitting cobra?
I mean, yeah, it IS that. And I’ll get to that in a moment. But first I want to clarify—for my straight readers—that it’s more than that.
Moby-Dick is the 19th-century literary equivalent to Jaws; or, conversely (and more chronologically accurate), Jaws is the 20th-century cinematic equivalent to Moby-Dick. (Note: by Jaws I mean the 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller about a great white shark man-eater, not the 1976 Deep Jaws about a not-so-great but definitely white mermaid who eats out men. This distinction may sound superfluous, but as will soon be apparent, the confusion could be real.)
Moby-Dick, though, is a hell of a lot longer (by which I mean the story), and may be more titillating terrifying, since, unlike Jaws, it’s actually gay based ever so slightly in reality.
The eponymous aquatic mammal was inspired by the actual occurrences of two real-life sperm whales: one who sunk the ship Essex in 1820 (of which a book was written in 1821); the other an albino called Mocha Dick who attacked ships with great ferocity (so they say) until it was killed in the late 1830s.
Melville himself spent eighteen months on a whaling ship in the early 1840s. And having so much intimate knowledge of his subject, much of the novel’s simple plot gets inundated…almost lost from time to time with the minutiae of whaling practices; entire chapters are written like sections from a nautical encyclopedia.
Nonetheless, as you dig past those dry, archaically scholarly treaties, and with that personal and historical backdrop as well as the real-life horrors actual whalers of that day lived through (I know, poor li’l ol’ whalers), the tone of this novel is dark; it’s gritty; it’s poetic; it has a grim, Clint Eastwoodesque sense of humor lightly sprinkled throughout…
…AND it’s gay.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. That is, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s just…surprising, since the book was published antebellum and I didn’t think homosexual activity existed before the early 2000s when I stumbled one day into Tom Cruise’s closet and saw….)
Part 2—Ambiguously Gay
I should clarify a touch more: By gay, I more precisely mean ambiguously gay; as in…
…Batman & Robin…
…Bert & Ernie…
…Gilligan & Skipper…
…Ginger & Mary Ann…
…1980’s Prince & 1990’s The Artist Formerly Known as Prince…
…Starsky & Hutch…
…Starsky? & Hutch?…
…Laverne & Shirley…
…Ben & Jerry…
…Ben & Jerry’s…
…Leonardo & Michelangelo…
…Tinky Winky & Apparently Anyone Who Grew Up Watching Teletubbies…
…Rock Hudson & James Dean…
…Rabbis & Priests…
…Muslims & Sikhs…
…Robin & Richard…
…Batman & Robin…
…Vince Neil & Steven Tyler…
…Madonna & Britney…
…Mel & Danny…
…Shrek & Donkey…
…Cary Grant & Randolph Scott…
…John & Yoko…
…Siskel & Ebert…
…Chip ‘n’ Dale…
…Ben & Matt…
…Daniel Tosh & Some Creepy Old Dude…
…The Dwarf & The Six Other Dwarfs…
…and—I can’t stress this enough—Batman & Robin…
Or more to the point: Robert Smigel’s infamous SNL lampoon of The Dynamic Duo in “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Where everyone around these super-tights-wearing “superheroes” is constantly scratching their heads and basically saying, “Ummm…did they just say what I thought they said?…‘cause they seem oblivious….Oh no, now look what they’re doing!….Do they seriously not know how that looks?….”
Reading Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (that’s what sh…he said), I get that same sense from Melville. Like he didn’t think he was writing a gay story—it’s just that many passages, read not in the context of the author’s day but with a modern sensibility, sound gay….
Why? Because I think it’s the last thing that pokes into most people’s minds when they hear the words…
Which—when I put it like that—is all that much stranger considering it has the word “Moby” right in the title! (And “Dick,” too.) I mean, how the hell did THAT get past the censors? Maybe…it’s so obvious you don’t even notice? What’s the clichéd phrase? Hiding in plain sight?
(Imagine if Jules Verne called his famous novel Journey to the Center of The Er-other Man’s Anus. Would we—our collective consciousness—have noticed? Or if Mark Twain more accurately named his, Jungle Fever for the Pedophile: Adventures of a Precocious White Boy Named Huckleberry Finn and his “Trip” Down the “Mississippi River” with his Good—But Much, Much Older—Predatory Black “Buddy” Named Jim. Again I ask—would we have noticed?)
Part 3—The Beginning: The Dick, Page 1, Ishmael, Nantucket, All-Male Brothels, and Black Whores
So right out of the gate we have this large and blatantly obvious “Dick” waving (or poking…or throbbing…or undulating…or slapping…or, whatever) about in our faces.
Where we find Ishmael (“Call me Ishmael.”) Who, as his name implies, is a male…but shhh….
Basically he’s some naïve dude who (like a first year medical student studying gastroenterology) is young, has adventure in his heart, and is ready to head out into the big world to “explore.” His is the point of view we readers are spewed through while he narrates the story from his firsthand account of things. He starts off in Manhattan headed towards…
—Oh! That’s right!
There once was a man from Nantucket, Whose schlong was so long he could suck it. He said with a grin, While wiping his chin, ‘If back it would bend, I could f*** it!’
Ah, THAT Nantucket! Mystery solved. Basically the 19th-century municipal equivalent to our modern-day San Francisco. Which lecherous limerick, as will be seen shortly, is relevant.
Anyway, Ishmael works his way to an inn called (and here’s where that limerick starts to become relevant) “The Crossed Harpoons”. He describes this place as possibly being “Gomorrah” (as in, Sodom and Gomorrah? Where we get the word for…sodomy?). But noooo…that’s…not…quite what he’s looking for…so he pushes on to the next place called “The Spouter Inn:—Peter Coffin.”
Peter? Spouter? What’s that? I dunno, but the sign over the door has a painting “faintly representing a tall straight jet of misty spray.”
A tall straight jet? Of misty spray? Coming out of Peter’s…spouter?
I GUESS that’s 19th-century whaling terminology. I guess….
Anyhow, it’s a most curious sort of place. Or rather, as Ishmael puts it, “a queer sort of place.”
But…queer just meant “strange” in Melville’s day, not gay…right?
I THINK so….
So (five-for-five?), I’ll ignore I just read that and press on…oh, wait, maybe I shouldn’t have ignored that—or the book’s title, or the fact Ishmael’s compass needle is aiming for Nantucket of all places, or the Crossed Harpoons, or the sodomy allusion, or the tall straight jet of misty spray spouting out of some dude’s peter—because now he enters this place and discovers what can best be described in modern terms as an all-male, fully-implemented BDSM dungeon:
The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement.
Shuddered and wondered, indeed! Oh, and incidentally, here’s a photo of that very wall—just in case you’re having a hard time visualizing it:
And on the other side of the room? A “number of young seamen gathered about a table.”
“Seamen”? Gathered about a table? Or swimming about a table?
Either way, he goes to the landlord to ask for a room, who answers thusly: “…avast… you haint no objections to sharing a harpooneer’s blanket, have ye? [Depends—do you have a black UV light I can look at it with first?~AI] I s’pose you are goin’ a-whalin’, so you’d better get used to that sort of thing.”
That sort of…“thing”?
Ishmael at first says he’s not into…that sort of “thing,” but rather quickly decides he’s willing to give it a shot. That is, if the other harpooneer is someone he likes. And this other harpooneer he’s promised? A “dark complexioned chap” who (and I further quote) “never eats dumplings…he eats nothing but steaks, and he likes ‘em rare.”
Armed with this insight, Ishmael reasons through it: “I made up my mind that if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did.”
How the bedevil?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Uh…oh…okay…sure, why not? It’s your first time, Ishmael. You’re gun shy. But be forewarned: Once you go black, you never go back (so they say).
Or is it—once you go gay, there’s no other…way?
Soooooo…when you combine both those elements into a one-off event (like a firing squad AND a hanging)…end of story?
Before getting down to monkey business for the night, however, Ishmael decides to “spend the rest of the evening as a looker on.” Makes sense. Considering this is apparently a commitment from which there is—like circumcision, or death—no return. So after noticing the “fine stature” of one “seaman” amongst this group of “seamen” as they participate in “orgies” with other “seamen” (in which surprisingly no mention of pet swallows was brought up), Ishmael either is truly conflicted or at least pretends to hesitate on whether he wants to go through with it: “The more I pondered over this harpooneer, the more I abominated the thought of sleeping with him.” But with a little persuasion from the landlord he ultimately decides he’s ready to head up to the room: “perhaps we may become jolly good bedfellows after all,” he reasons to himself.
However, his promised “dark complexioned” harpooneer is not around. Where could he be? And if he does show up, Ishmael asks himself (and I quote), “how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?”
Annnyyyyhow…shortly thereafter, Queequeg does, in fact, show up. This is him, the “dark complexioned” harpooneer Ishmael had had reserved by the…landlord?…pimp?…lordpimp? So, yet another seaman dude. Take note: two dudes—two “seamen” dudes, right? Who for the first time LITERALLY…MEET…IN…BED…!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????
Yes, they meet in bed, at an inn with tall straight jets of misty spray spouting out of someone’s peter, right next to The Crossed “Harpoons”—emphasis on “Harpoons”…AND “Crossed”—where perhaps anal probing was alluded to while other “seamen” of “fine stature” are having “orgies” in this man-cave while surrounded by some seriously heavy-duty bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism toys.
And heaven only knows from what “vile hole” Queequeg had just been “coming.” Or did he mean…cumming?
But this was before public schools offered sex (or spelling) education standards. So naturally these two seamen dudes sleep together, I’ll presume without any protection:
Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife….My sensations were strange.
As are mine. I can only assume they enjoyed it, because they do it again…and again…and again…and….
Do what, exactly, your collectively filthy minds ask? Good question. To preface the answer to this…delicate…issue, I found this quote from Wikipedia rather telling: “In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes.” (You forgot euphemism, double-entendre, innuendo, single-entendre, and tres-amigos-style ménage à trios.)
Symbolism? Metaphor? Complex…themes? (Tres-amigos-style ménage à trios?)
Let’s briefly fast-forward to a wee-bitty, obscure paragraph in chapter 89 that I think gives us a way to interpret some of Melville’s symbolism and metaphors. In talking about one’s legal possession of property, our narrator mentions an interesting court case as an example. During the trial of this case, the defense lawyer for it alluded to yet another recent case:
…wherein a gentleman, after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness, had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life; but in the course of years, repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her….[The defense lawyer] supported it by saying, that though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her.
Hmmmmm….many a-harpoon in this lady. This…“loose”…lady…
And speaking of harpoons—turns out, as I learned from the above, they aren’t just for whales anymore. Literally. In fact, as we are about to learn, they aren’t just for ladies anymore, either. Which brings a whole new dimension of understanding to this entire “Crossed Harpoons” place. So with that enlightening interpretive note, I appeal to Ishmael’s symbolic, metaphorical words to help clarify this…“complex theme”…taking place between these two harpooneers, back in the bedroom:
[Queequeg] still hugged me tightly…I now strove to rouse him…I then rolled over, my neck feeling as if it were in a horse-collar; and suddenly felt a slight scratch….[T]hought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal….At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt….[H]e drew back his arm….[He was] stiff as a pike-staff….Meanwhile, I lay quietly eyeing him, having no serious misgivings now, and bent upon narrowly observing so curious a creature. When, at last, his mind seemed made up touching the character of his bedfellow, and he became, as it were, reconciled to the fact;
I was having a hard time visualizing this affectionate scene since it’s probably symbolic or metaphorical for something…“deep.” So I drew a little diagram to help wrap my straight mind around this complex text:
Some days later, however, with time and practice, Ishmael describes their sleeping together in more relaxed, comforting terms. Like this:
We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we;
Isn’t that nice. Nonetheless, again having a hard time visualizing this, so drew another diagram:
So, these two dudes really seem to like each other. So much, in fact, they eventually embark on a 3 to 5 year voyage of each other’s rectums the sea on board a whaling sailboat along with basically the entire lineup of the Village People: we have some black dudes, some white dudes, some Indians, some Navy sailors, some construction workers (or at least a carpenter and blacksmith)….Hell, for all I know, there may have been a cop, a cowboy, a biker, and an electrician, too.
But what I do know is this: on board was a suave swashbuckler called “Starbuck”…
…which I took to be a nickname he was given for some bodily feature readily apparent to the other seamen. (As an aside, we later learn Stub enjoys eating, and this is word-for-word from the text, “Whale-balls for breakfast.” Maybe he figures because these balls come from whales, they will—like Jack’s beans—magically transmit their essence of enormity and turn his stub into a…ummm…giant beanstalk?)
It’s important to note this crew because our two original homos heroes, Ishmael and Queequeg, had at least three ships to choose from, and they picked this one: “this was the very ship for us.” Some of the highlights of Ishmael’s description of it:
[H]er masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne….She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies.
So these seamen set sail on this bejeweled, effeminate, flamboyant ship dubbed the Pequod (pronounced PEE-quad), where quad, as we all learned in gym class, is another word for…thigh? And pee…hmmm…pee-pee? Penis? Penis flopping on thighs? So the Village People are sailing the high seas on a bejeweled, effeminate, flamboyant thigh-flopping penis vessel? And as one would expect from a ship of this leaning, “seamen” are “swabbing the deck” while talking almost exclusively about “whales,” one in particular called “Dick.”
Naïve Ishmael turns out to be not so naïve, after all. At this point he seems to know (…surprise!…surprise!…) a great deal about “whales.” But he allegedly acquired such (carnal) knowledge merely from books.
He systematically proceeds to describe to us the various “whales” of the ocean. Such as the “hump-back,” which as best as I can determine is a seaman idiom for what us ordinary straight land folks simply call “doggy style.” Which makes sense, considering he goes on to say this whale makes “gay foam,” which is another seaman idiom for what modern gays now call “santorum” (in honor of Rick Santorum).
He also talks about a sperm whale called “Long-John” who gets his name because of his loooooooooonnnnnnnng…john…son? Well, Ishmael says it’s from his long “fin,” yet, oddly, he doesn’t call him…I dunno…Long Fin? He IS sometimes called “Tall-Spout,” though. I can only guess why: because his squirting spout, much like Old Faithful (or Ron Jeremy), is very, very mind-numbingly tall? But I don’t have to do much guess work with that “fin,” as Ishmael describes it in mesmerizingly stunning detail:
This fin is some three or four feet long, growing vertically…of an angular shape, and with a very sharp pointed end. Even if not the slightest other part of the creature be visible, this isolated fin will, at times, be seen plainly projecting from the surface.
Good to know.
Moving on, he also talks about a whale he calls “Black Fish” whose “lips are curved upwards.” And, “Though their blubber is very thin, some of these whales will yield you upwards of thirty gallons of oil.” By which I think he means, thirty gallons of…“oil.”
Pretty much in all these whale discussions, proportions, sizes, and quantities are gargantuan!
Such as with the narwhale, a “creature [that is] is some sixteen feet in length, while its horn averages five feet, though some exceed ten, and even attain to fifteen feet.”
And speaking of short and long narwhale horns: much like the male reproductive organ, some chapters in this book are laughably short, while others are grotesquely long. Chapter 35 is one of the long ones. Which is apt, considering it is entirely about just that—long ones. More specifically, long “mastheads.” Again in mesmerizingly stunning detail, he goes through the entire history of long “mastheads,” beginning with the first (metaphorically speaking, I guess)—the tower at Babel. Seriously.
In Ishmael’s (and Melville’s) eyes, it would seem phallic symbols everywhere abound. Like when Melville writes, “Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter’s!”
Imagine if Melville lived long enough to see the erection of the CN Tower!
Or if he ever went on a hike through Arches National Park in Utah!
With such innumerable distractions erecting everywhere, Melville struggles to keep the plot going. But he shakes his head and resolutely pushes on. We finally learn a little about the namesake of the book, Moby Dick himself, in chapter 36. He is described as a sperm whale, but a “white whale” who “fan-tale[s] a little curious…before he goes down….”
Hmmm…anything else we should know about this…Dick?
Yes: “[He has] a curious spout, too…very bushy…and mighty quick….”
I see. Repugnant. But I see.
Anyhow, up to this point in the book we have only briefly heard, in passing, of the aloof and mysterious Captain Ahab, who turns out to be the real protagonist (or antagonist?) of the story. We don’t actually hear him speak, though, till this same chapter—36. And it soon becomes apparent he’s an old pro. At what, exactly? Well, I guess that’s for each reader to decide for him or herself. I only relay the facts. Which facts are these:
After they’d been at sea for some time and no one on board having actually spoken with the captain, he mysteriously and suddenly spews out of his cabin, quickly gathers all the seamen round him, then delivers his first speech, which, in its symbolic, metaphorical way, illustrates a great deal about the man and his mission (and bear in mind what Melville meant when he used the word “harpoon”—and I suppose by extension(?), “lance,” “weapon,” “iron,” and anything else that’s long…and hard):
[Ahab] turning to the harpooneers, he ordered them to produce their weapons. Then ranging them before him near the capstan, with their harpoons in their hands, while his three mates stood at his side with their lances, and the rest of the ship’s company formed a circle round the group…
“Drink and pass!” he cried, handing the heavy charged flagon to the nearest seaman. “The crew alone now drink. Round with it, round! Short draughts—long swallows, men; ’tis hot as Satan’s hoof…ye mates, flank me with your lances; and ye harpooneers, stand there with your irons; and ye, stout mariners, ring me in, that I may in some sort revive a noble custom of my fisherman fathers before me…Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis.”
So saying, with extended arm, he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them…
At this point, right after Ahab “twitched” the lances, they basically all drink…something…“fiery waters”?…jizzing from each other’s “harpoon sockets.” When suddenly, as fast as they drink, Ahab, like a typical man, is exhausted and loses interest. Just as quickly as he had emerged, like a shy turtle he now “retired within his cabin” while everyone else, probably confused at whatever the hell they just did with each other, “dispersed.”
We turn the page to chapter 37 where Ahab, while secluded in his cabin, then revisits this queer (by which I mean strange AND gay) event as he describes to himself what just occurred: “’Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve.”
When I first read that, I was just as dumbfounded as the seamen. But then I realized it did, sort of, sound familiar…
—Ohhhh…yeah! Saw this once before in Brüno:
Moving on to chapter 38, Ishmael, Queequeg’s twinkie (as Diesel is to Brüno), quickly learns he doesn’t like the cut of his creepy-old captain’s jib. He describes him as “a madman!” who “drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason [i.e. santorum~AI] out of me!” It then appears Ahab turned Ishmael into his own personal Wez…or gimp: “the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.”
The captain, it turns out—unbeknownst to the happy crew until long after they’ve been trapped at sea, where no one can hear them scream—is basically the 19th-century villainous equivalent to…Lord Humungus? Or maybe, more equivalent to Zed…
Either way, how did he become such a raping fiend?
We learn that Ahab had, once before, met Moby Dick, who, being the larger of the two, bit off the captain’s “leg,” making it…smaller (I guess like the seaman they call “Stub”).
Believe it or not, this biting-off-of-another’s-appendage is actually not as uncommon in nature as you might think. Those loveable critters we all affectionately call the slug, it turns out, are largely born hermaphrodites—both male and female parts (sort of a Swiss Army knife of reproductive organs). To remedy this…predicament?…the larger slugs bite off the smaller slugs’ penises, thus creating harmony and balance among all living things by forcing the existence of a submissive “female” bitch for the dominating “male” son-of-a-bitch.
(If the picture to the right seems confusing, that’s because their erections are coming out of their heads. Autofellatio, anyone?)
Ahab, it turns out, is (or thinks he is) a round peg, and was not so submissive with being forced into this square-hole role of Moby Dick’s be-otch. So the now (round) peg-less seaman set sail on this large, prosthetic strap-on called the Pequod with the sole intention, with an unaware crew, of returning the favor to the marine butch by ramming what’s left of his munched-off round peg into the white whale’s square hole till the beast dies a most painful death.
(Of course the other option was to perform a donkey punch. That’s nearly fatal every time. So I’ve heard).
And speaking of white whales, or just “white,” Ishmael in chapter 42 drones on and on—ad infinitum in yet another of these looooooooooooonnnnnng chapters (kind of like this blog post)—about the grandeur of this color (or absence thereof): white pearls…white elephants…milk-white steeds…the white forked flame…the snow-white bull…the sacred white dog…the white tunic…the white robes of St. John…the white robes of the four-and-twenty elders…the great white throne…the white Holy One sitting upon the great white throne….
But for some reason, this whale named Dick, who is also white, just seems wrong to Ishmael: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
But…why, Ishmael? Why is it so appalling? If white is so magnificent on everything else, what is soooooooo wrong with a white Dick?
Hmmm…let’s think about this for a sec…‘cause a second is all it takes. Recall with me, if you will, the beginning of the story where a young, virgin Ishmael has his first encounter with…who was it? A “dark complexioned chap”?
I guess it IS true what they say: Once you go…
As we read on, against our better judgment, it becomes apparent that the crew of the Pequod have nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do. So all basically submit to Captain Ahab as his little Wezs and gimps forced to search for the hideous great white Dick. In essence, Ahab is to his crew what Moby Dick is to Ahab: a large, dong-munching bastard—and paying it forward.
And as everyone slowly becomes more aware AND psychotic, wandering aimlessly around in the high seas in their search, they tell stories to keep their morale (among other things) up. By chapter 54 we hear the tale of a vessel called the “Town-Ho.” Yes, you read correctly—the “Town-Ho.” (Take note Merriam-Webster: You say the first recorded use of “ho” as slang for whore was in 1965? Try 1851.)
So what town is this…ho…from, you ask? By now, the answer should be all too obvious:
There once was a ho from—
Anyhow, we hear about this Town Ho, and it turns out to have a hole—a leaky hole—because “a sword-fish had stabbed her.” Which I guess would be a common enough problem for town hos from Nantucket. But maybe more so for this capital “T” and capitol “H” Town Ho—which I take to mean it’s like the headmaster of all town hos. Especially in light of it being another “whaling” ship. As was made amply clear back in chapter 32, when using whaling metaphors, the enormity of the sizes involved are veritable and nothing to laugh at. Clearly great bodily harm is a common theme in this story.
Which brings us to the mutinous de facto leader of this particular vessel—“Steelkilt.” At first I thought he was called this because he wore like a Scottish chastity belt of some sort; you know, to protect from unwanted advances of, say, a wandering narwhale “horn”…or a swordfish’ “sword.” That is until he started speaking with (and I quote Ishmael), “gay banterings.” Yes, gay banterings. Such as, “let me mount you a moment.”
Oh, wait. Just re-read that. He actually says, “let me board you a moment.” But in our modern world (and even in Ishmael’s less-than-modern world), that still fits within the rubric of “gay banterings.”
Leaving the story of the Town Ho behind (like the town ho it is), and back to reality (of a fictional story, where the first rule of writing seems to apply: write what you know), the Pequod periodically crosses paths with other vessels. They bump ‘n grind into one in chapter 81 called the Virgin. Simultaneously, these two ships, the Peqoud and the Virgin, spot a sperm whale and both competitively go in for the kill. The Peqoud “spears” the whale first. Needless to say, the Virgin, sadly, remained that day, still a virgin. I guess it has a reputation to keep.
Unlike the reputation of the Bachelor. Another ship the Peqoud cops a feel of as it grazes past in chapter 115. This vessel is explicitly described as being “gay” with a captain who “stood erect.”
But enough of these other ho, virgin, and gay ships. Let’s get back to the virgins, hos, and intrepid sailors on our gay ship. In which chapter 56 is all about our brave seamen whiling away their down time by looking at what I can best describe, using modern language, as…whale porn—drawings of whales and seamen doing unthinkable acts with each other, such as one of a whale with a (and I quote) “pole inserted into his spout-hole.”
What I will say, though, is that a large swathe of this book, maybe as much as a quarter, is dedicated to the intimate details of the capture and dissection of some ordinary, ho-hum whales, where ambiguously gay things are shouted starboard and larboard. Such as in chapter 73, where we are introduced to the not-so-PC phrase, “fagged whale.” Which I feel inclined to interpret, no matter how incorrectly, as a 19th-century nautical term for a whale that has been buggered.
But by whom? Another whale? Another seaman? The latter seems feasible since one of the seamen, we’re told by chapter 78, “has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the [whale]…”
At least two whole chapters, 67-68, are all about how these seamen skin a whale—turns out you peel ‘em like an orange: “Now as the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so is it stripped off from the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it.” Melville goes into lengthy, intimate particulars about this process, describing it in a way that seems almost like a Jonathon Swift allegory to circumcision, with a mythical land of little people capturing, tying down, and cutting away the foreskin of this MOTHER-FREAKIN’ GINORMOUS MALE GENITAL METAPHORICALLY CALLED THE BIGGEST CREATURE KNOWN TO HUMANKIND—A DAMN FRIGGEN WHALE…BRAZENLY…NAMED…“DICK”!!!!!!!! ANYONE???????????
Chapter 91 tells a…interesting?…tantalizing?… story. This one takes a bit of explaining, but it’s worth it. So bear with me:
The Peqoud comes across a French whaling ship trying to haul in what’s called a “blasted whale,” which is “a whale that has died unmolested.” I don’t want to get into the particulars of whatever the hell Melville may or may not have meant by that, but suffice to say that, ostensibly at least, whales that die “unmolested” are inferior; i.e. they don’t have enough “oil” left in them to be worth a damn. So the Peqoud gropes up alongside this French vessel, and Stub shouts to them they are wasting their time. Some French dude, the chief mate (basically the rank of Riker from Star Trek: TNG), shouts back in English that he knows, but is unable to convince his inexperienced captain of this. Stub wastes no time—he shouts to the French chief mate: “[M]y sweet and pleasant fellow,” he says. Then he mounts him—by which I mean Stub mounts the French boat—to talk more intimately with him. The chief mate in return seems to take to liking Stub pretty much immediately, as he instantly reveals to Stub, “his detestation of his Captain as a conceited ignoramus”. As a result of their instant bromance, these two guys, on the spot, concocted a dangerous love-triangle game to play, as follows:
When the French captain, who did not speak English, came out, Stub said facetious nonsense; then the French chief mate pretended to interpret for his captain while all the while really saying his thoughts; namely, that hauling in this “unmolested” whale was a waste of time.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting (i.e. gay): Among the things Stub had been saying in English and pretending to be intended for the French captain but really goofing around with the chief mate, one was this: “tell him I’ve diddled him….”
I must confess, I was unfamiliar with this word. But it sounded gay. So I had to look it up. In Merriam-Webster’s. I discovered several meanings, two of which are totally different yet both perfectly applicable in the context. One is to “fool,” which Stub was indeed doing to the French captain. The other meaning is “to copulate with,” which Stub was not doing (I don’t think) but maybe…wanted to be doing? To the French captain?
I can only imagine Melville sitting around by candlelight with quill in hand writing this fictional conversation, and thinking to himself:
Looky here! My boy Stub wants to have coitus with this French captain, but I couldn’t possibly get away with writing that outright without risk of being tarred & feathered, pilloried, and burned at the stake—living as I do in 19th -century puritan-descended New England and all.
What to do…?
What to do…?
Is there a word…that I could use…that means to “fool”… but ALSO means…to “copulate”? So if anyone ever calls me out on it I’ll simply play dumb and say, “Oh heavens to Betsy! Goodness gracious me! I had NO IDEA! Are you telling me that word also means THAT?!?!?”
Well I’ll be! Today must be my lucky day! Because here’s the very word I was looking for—
How perfect! Oh I love Love LOVE the ambiguous English language!
Yes you do, Mr. Melville. Yes you do….
Such as in chapter 94. This is a…sticky?…chapter. Appropriately called “A Squeeze of the Hand.” The crew of the Peqoud by this point had captured yet another generic sperm whale. In the process of dissecting and extracting the oil, we find this fine gem of Ishmael’s thoughts within those gooey pages (in what I imagine a ruggedly masculine Richard Simmons’ voice):
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
One commenter on The Straight Dope message boards perfectly sums this up:
[T]his ‘sperm’ is spermaceti which is not really whale semen but people used to think it was, despite its being found in the animal’s head. It is a form of wax and you can, among other things, make candles out of it. Long, thick candles…
Touché, my online friend. Touché.
As we read on, it is clear that Captain Ahab has become a ripe bastard. It’s never perfectly clear as to why…that is until Ishmael in chapter 115 points out something revealing—almost too revealing: “…everything was filled with sperm, except the captain’s pantaloons…”
ED much, Ahab? Stick around for a hundred-fifty more years—our modern apothecaries can do wonders for you.
Part 5—Marsellus and Zed
So, as you can imagine, we get to the end of the book, and lo! Ahab indeed finds the white whale. With all the captain’s pent up anger, he goes in for the kill, personally lunging his special “harpoon” into him…
…only to have this Dick not only survive, but—to add insult to injury, as if biting off his “leg” all those years prior wasn’t bad enough—the whale then in turn bites off Ahab’s peg leg strap-on!
Yes! I know! Who’s your daddy NOW, you SONABITCH!
Oh, and incidentally, guess who still does not have sploog in his pantaloons? Hint: it’s not Moby Dick, for he left the surface of the water, with Ahab floating in it, “…creamed like new milk….”
Though, I guess in a gallows-humor sense, Ahab in fact did end up with love juice in his britches—albeit not his. Nonetheless, I would like to say the story ended on this happy note. But it actually gets better, surprisingly.
Oh, do read on:
I won’t go into the details of how, but basically Ahab—like Ishmael before, now in a perfect what-goes-around-comes-around moment—gets tethered to the watery beast and towed out to sea as Moby Dick’s gimp. We’ll never know for sure, but perhaps for one fleeting moment, Ishmael’s earlier words to describe Ahab flitted through the madman’s mind as the whale dragged him under: “the ineffable thing has tied me to him, tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.”
What Ahab-slash-Zed didn’t seem to realize is that Moby Dick was never gimp material. Ahab may have TRIED to make the whale his sex slave, but that big-ass motha’ fricken’ Dick, aside from being white, was really more Marsellus Wallace material—and yes, he got medieval on Ahab’s ass.
Be that as it may, and needless to say—Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.
I’ll wrap this up more or less how I began:
Is Herman Melville gay?
Is Moby-Dick written intentionally to be metaphorically or allegorically gay?
But when viewed with a modern sense of things (as well as looking at passages somewhat out of context), is this canonical Great Book of the Western World ambiguously gay?
Does Stephen Hawking have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?
Is Charles Manson crazy, crazy insane?
Is Saddam Hussein…just resting?
Is Snooki an orange, skanky, Oompa-Loompa-like ho?
I won’t answer these…difficult…questions for you. But what I will do is conclude with one final quote from the book which I think will shed some light on this hard(?) question. Bear in mind, these are Herman Melville’s words, not mine. So I mean no disrespect. I only add this:
Mr. Melville, I humbly present to you your own words, lifted from chapter 108, as a mirror reflection of your innermost soul:
[H]e’s queer…that one sufficient little word queer; he’s queer…he’s queer—queer, queer…all the time—queer—sir—queer, queer, very queer.
Recently [Author’s note: that adjective was more accurate last year when I originally wrote this—AI], I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the seven-volume epic by J.K. Rowling.
I realize I’m quite possibly the second-to-last person living to do so (which is why I don’t feel too inclined to point out this review does contain spoilers, but only for that one dude, who probably can’t read anyway). But at least I finished it. And before the corresponding movie (which was wisely done in two parts). Now that I’ve read all seven, my thoughts:
It started off weak.
By the time I clued in to the enormous popularity of the books, the first movie was already released and the fourth volume was in print. Following the herd, I saw the cinematic adaptation…and enjoyed. Not necessarily in my top 50…but enjoyed.
Naturally, it was about that time I felt if I was going to amount to anything at all in this fast-paced, cold, unforgiving world, I had to read the Harry Potter books—or otherwise with certainty be left in the cut-throat, fantasy-world dust trampled mercilessly underfoot.
So I read the first one…first. It was kind of a letdown. I’m not saying it was bad. Just with all the built-up hysteria, it ended up seeming like a pretty straight forward, simple narrative for the youngsters; not the complex, brutal, and—so far—untouchable Lord of the Rings’ reincarnate I was envisaging. True, it had smatterings of clever wordplay (“Diagon Alley”/“diagonally”). But in the immortally pithy words of music-critic Simon Cowell, I was like, “So what.”
To be fair, I reminded myself there were more stories yet to come. I couldn’t honestly critique until I’ve read all.
So I trudged on, usually neck and neck with the release of the corresponding theatrical interpretation. Sometimes I read a book before the motion picture; sometimes after. And each tome progressively got thicker, more complex, more mature, and, frankly, better. (The movies don’t necessarily progress that way, but such is the curse of the inflexible time-limit of the cinematic format.) By the time I was on the third or fourth volume I started to comprehend the public’s hype. From there on, the books’ waxed pleasurably, and I was hooked.
My mind started to grasp minor metaphors: Harry Potter as an archetype of the young King Arthur; and the mighty wizard Albus Dumbledore? An archetype of the great wizard Merlin (the wise, powerful, white-bearded old-man being a typical archetype of many a story, including, but not limited to, Gandalf, Santa Claus, or the ubiquities God). I read somewhere or other (probably in Wikipedia) the understatement that Rowling is fond of T.H. White’s children’s tetralogy The Once and Future King (whose first book published in 1938 is the familiar The Sword in the Stone, which was more like the sword in the anvil on the stone, and is, obviously, the same upon which Walt Disney based his classic 1963 animated film).
White is by no means the first to write about the Arthurian legends. But he may be the most popular and influential for the past century. His influence on Rowling (not to mention Monty Python; and perhaps Bernie Taupin/Elton John; i.e. The Candle in the Wind) is apparent when comparisons are drawn—and I don’t just mean the obvious use of her initials as her penname: “T.H.,” “J.K.” Both stories largely take place in the English country; in and around an ancient castle furnished with four-poster beds, paintings that animate to life, and surrounded by deadly forests; with wizards, witches, & mythical creatures surrounding the plot (ogres, griffins, unicorns, dragons, talking trees, giants, etc.); and themes vacillating between times both ancient and modern.
The hero of White’s story, “the Wart” (a.k.a. King Arthur), like Potter, was orphaned and raised by relatives who treated him as less important than their own son, Kay (whose loose counterpart in the Potter stories could maybe be Dudley). Wart was friends with the pet owl named Archimedes; whereas Potter had a pet owl named Hedwig. Archimedes was Merlin’s pet bird; Dumbledore’s pet bird was the phoenix named Faux. Wart lived at and was educated in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage; Potter lived at and was educated in the castle Hogwarts (itself having the name “Wart” in it). Wart had the opportunity one day to morph into a fish and swam in the mote around the castle; Potter one day grew gills and webbed appendages and swam as good as a fish in the lake adjacent to the castle. Wart morphed into a peregrine Falcon one day, a thrush another, learning how to fly; by comparison Potter also learned to fly, whether by broomstick, enchanted car, hippogriff, or a dragon. Another day still, Wart spent time as a snake speaking snake talk with another fellow legless reptile; Potter spoke fluent parseltongue (snake talk) and frequently inhabited the body of Nagini, Voldemort’s personal pet serpent. On that same day, Wart spent time in “a secret chamber;” whereas Potter spent time in “the Chamber of Secrets.” And a different day altogether, Merlin used his magical powers on himself and Wart to instantly swirl them both to a different far-off place (teleportation; White calls those who do this “apparators”); Dumbledore and Potter also instantly swirled to different far-off places, whether by touching port keys, going through the flu network or, as most closely resembles White’s story, by what Rowling calls “apparition.” When Wart pulls the sword from the anvil (on the stone), it is pointed out how it chose him; by comparison, Potter’s wand, it is explained piecemeal throughout all seven books, chose Potter. The three main protagonists, close friends, and quarreling lovers of White’s stories are Arthur, Guinevere, & Lancelot; using a similar dynamic, in Rowling’s stories it’s Potter, Hermione, & Weasley. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at one point famously retrieved the near-unbreakable sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake; similarly, at one point Potter and Weasley retrieved the near-unbreakable Sword of Gryffindor from a lake. When Potter, Weasley, & Granger retrieved the horcrux that was a gold cup, it seemed reminiscent of King Arthur and his Knights in search of another gold cup, more famously known as the Holy Grail. White’s slimy character Mordred (whose name sounds morbid since it literally sounds like the word “morbid”) could easily have been inspiration to Rowling for such comparatively slimy characters as Snape (sounds like “snake”) and the Malfoys (similar to “malfeasance,” i.e. wrongdoing or evildoing; not to mention the morbid name Draco which is Latin for dragon, though some have suggested Rowling meant it to connote with the ancient Athenian ruler Draco and his cruel Draconian laws). In White’s stories, King Arthur married Guinevere who was called Ginny by her closest friends; Rowling’s stories end with Potter also marrying a Ginny, which was the nickname derived from her true first name: Ginevra.
Although fantasy is not my favorite speculative fiction, at times I enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, and The Once and Future King. But I feel more comfortable about the genre if I know the author is aware it is make-believe and doesn’t think this kind of supernatural magic exists in the real world (such as the case with the realist Phillip Pullman). And I’m even more comfortable if the author at least sort of tries to hint at that to their readers. (Although J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis knew their respective stories were make-believe, they thought of them as allegories to reality when in fact they are mostly allegories of mythologies. At least Lewis was open about the allegory; Tolkien denied his was—but, like the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, Gandalf the Grey was risen from the dead as the more powerful Gandalf the White. Need I say more?)
Although on the surface the Potter stories don’t seem it, the more I read the more I was of the opinion Rowling is (like Pullman) mostly on the side of reality. One example to illustrate this is Hermione Granger, which character I suspect Rowling has written, perhaps, as a reflection of how she envisions herself when she was that age: a studious know-it-all, adept in sound logic. If we can truly infer Rowling’s view of reality through the prism of her descriptions of Granger, there is a superb example in chapter 21 of Deathly Hallows when she is reading from The Tales of Beedle the Bard out loud to Potter, Weasley, and Xenophilius Lovegood. Potter seems surprised about the book’s personification of death. Granger responds, “It’s a fairy tale, Harry!” Perhaps Rowling knowingly saved the use of that simple expression for her final Potter book to remind her devout fans to apply it themselves to her books lest they get too piously carried away in delusion. These stories are only fairy tales, not to be taken literally.
Granger goes on in that same chapter to demonstrate her reasonable grasp of logic when she asks Lovegood how the Resurrection Stone could be real. “Prove that it is not,” he curtly and matter-of-factly answered. Lovegood’s belief in the Resurrection Stone is based on the logical fallacy dubbed argumentum ad ignorantiam; that is, the argument from ignorance, or the appeal to ignorance (which can be read about more in-depth here, here, and here). This fallacy is often summed up with the phrase, “You cannot prove a negative.” What that means, is, negative (or non) existence of evidence is not evidence (or proof) of existence; or, the converse, as Carl Sagan famously said it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” These are ultimately statements of inconclusiveness—not proof either way. Statistical probabilities can be inferred, however, depending on the subject matter. For instance, the existence of life beyond earth and the solar system, though currently no direct evidence exists, many scientists consider not necessarily plausible but at least statistically probable based on the extrapolation of circumstantial evidence (i.e. we know life exists in this solar system, we know there are billions upon billions of other galaxies and stars in the seeable universe that obey the same laws of physics we do, and we now have direct evidence some of those stars have planets similar to ours in the “Goldilocks Zone”). Lovegood’s Resurrection Stone, like Russell’s Teapot (below), however, while their existence may or may not be possible, the lack of even circumstantial evidence makes them statistically improbable. With that in mind, Granger calls Lovegood out on his argumentum ad ignorantiam (though, alas, without calling it by name):
But that’s—I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of—of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!
Rowling via Granger seems to be channeling the well-known parable called Russell’s Teapot. It was explained in 1952 (five years before the first human-made object was launched into earthly orbit—Sputnik 1, 1957—nine years before the first human in outer space—Yuri Gagarin, 1961—and thirteen years before the first spacecraft flyby of Mars—Mariner 4, 1965) by scientific philosopher Bertrand Russell:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
Nonsense, indeed. Or, as Granger smartly noted with Lovegood’s rationale for his belief in the Resurrection Stone, “completely ridiculous!”
If Rowling truly is a realist, then, why write stories about unreal things? Answer: I think she simply utilizes fantasy as a hook; as sugar to help the medicine go down (to borrow a phrase from another Disney movie). It’s a means of conveying a coming-of-age story; and a brilliant tactic to get the younger generation—who are used to stories being presented via the multisensory, multimedia formats of TV, movies, and video games—to simply learn to enjoy the written word; and to recognize the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white.
No doubt Rowling enjoys the notoriety and enormous wealth, too. But I suspect her primary motivation was at first the sheer joy of writing stories. With success, that may have shifted to her concern of combating declining literacy, which is a noble cause. She seems to have made a sizeable dent in that arena, too, to which I applaud her.
But it wasn’t until the sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, that I finally clued into a much deeper message—something more profound that, I suspect, Rowling has been trying to convey in these stories all along, whether consciously or not.
I realize now these stories are an allegory for real-world conflicts of social inequality and discrimination of races, ethnicities, and minorities; inhumane treatments of animals (the non-human kind); and the social injustices of, perhaps, this planet’s worst nationalistic conflict: World War II, Hitler, and the Nazi regime.
Allow me to explain:
The stories loosely divide the characters into two groups, the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” or the socially fair and the socially unfair. This division is also reminiscent of the Allied Forces (good guys) and Axis Powers (bad guys) of World War II. The protagonists of the story, although not without faults, largely are fighting for equality. Whereas the antagonists of the story, though not necessarily in lockstep (or goose-step?) or even in alliance with one another, are fighting for power for specific groups of people at the exclusion of others; i.e. discrimination.
I will list three examples that I think demonstrate my points:
1) The family that raised Harry Potter, the Dursleys (being “muggles”—or non-magical—who would roughly be part of the antagonistic group), constantly make negative remarks about wizards and witches, the group our main heroes of the story—Potter, Granger, & Weasley—belong to. This sub-plot is a constant theme of tension, particularly in Potter’s life. It serves as a microcosm of the much larger macrocosm throughout this fictional world of tension between muggles and magicians (not to mention the tensions between humans, giants, centaurs, dragons, dementors, succubi, spiders, werewolves, merpeople, goblins, etc.). And it strikes me as suggestive of the real-world tensions of racism in all its various forms. Potter serves as the epitome of a minority group of one born as a magician, of which he had absolutely no choice, forced to be raised by the majority group of muggles who dislike magicians, epitomized by the Dursleys. If Potter himself was the one in power, he would love more than anything for magicians and muggles to get along in harmony and equality, but he’s forced to live with discriminatory treatment under the hands of the bigoted majority entirely because of his magical…race? ethnicity? (Rowling seems to think of magicians as a race as the stories use the phrase “the magical race.”)
2) There is the cause that the lead heroine of the story, Hermione Granger, takes up beginning with volume three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and is carried over into the proceeding books. She is of the very minority opinion—even her own best friends are not terribly supportive—that house-elves are treated not only unfairly, but inhumanely. She starts up an organization to counter this, called SPEW (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). This, to me, smacks of at least two organizations in the real world in the last couple of decades fighting for more humane treatment of animals, whose acronyms bear much similarity: The SPCA (Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and perhaps PETA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals…er, I mean, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
(Though I myself prefer humane treatment for animals, I’m not a fan of PETA’s tactics as lead by Ingrid Newkirk, who seems to be more interested not in equality—which alone might be pushing the matter a bit far—but placing animals in greater importance above humans, which I don’t agree with. My animal sensibilities are more in alignment with the SPCA, a division of the Humane Society. We should strive to treat animals humanely, but they are not necessarily equals. Whether in the real world Rowling is more of a PETA or SPCA supporter, I know not.)
3) This third example is the biggest source of conflict throughout the story and hits me as quite connotative of the Allied Forces versus the Axis Powers of World War II. The dark wizard Lord Voldemort, the pinnacle bad guy of the Potter stories, seems to be an allegorical character for German chancellor and dictator Adolph Hitler, largely perceived in the real world as the pinnacle bad guy of the twentieth century. Voldemort raises an army of Death Eaters whose sole mission seems to be to use whatever means possible, including murdering innocents ruthlessly, to have ultimate power over everyone else. The criteria that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has set to join his army seems to be 1) having magical powers, and 2) be a “pure blood,” meaning none of their ancestors can have been muggles (i.e. non-magical). This last criterion, being the most stringent and socially unfair, is, oddly, at odds with Voldemort personally, who, as it turns out, is a “mudblood” himself, an epithet often thrown at Hermione Granger. (While Voldemort is of mixed magical race or ethnicity—i.e. one parent being magical, the other muggle—Hermione was born with magical powers even though both of her parents are muggles. This pejorative “mudblood” is a recurring insult throughout the stories, especially as frequently invoked by the school bully Draco Malfoy, who later joins alongside his father as one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters.) The power-hungry contradictions of Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters can be likened to the power-hungry contradictions of Adolf Hitler and his army of Nazis. Hitler, as it is well known, wanted a Germany and ultimately a world controlled by what he thought of as the pure “Aryan race,” a sub-race of the larger Caucasian race. He is most notorious for the systematic execution of those not of his pureblood race, particularly the attempted genocide of the Jews, a race which, apparently, Hitler himself—like Voldemort—had ancestral ties to.
A couple more thoughts that also support my points but are of much minor themes in the stories and not expressed in allegory: Clearly having Hermione Granger as the lead heroine of the story, Rowling, a woman herself, was interested in showing that the female population should be viewed as socially equal and as capable in many if not most areas to the male population. Surely this has not gone unnoticed by many girl readers. And lastly, by revealing during a Q & A that in her mind Albus Dumbledore (without question the pinnacle “good guy” of the stories and seemingly without a married partner) is a homosexual, Rowling seems to be expressing, albeit timidly, her support of antidiscrimination and social equality for those of minority sexual preference; i.e. gays, lesbians, etc.
To recap, the Harry Potter books are, on the surface, fun coming-of-age fantasy stories, perhaps most inspired by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, understood to be works of fiction (“It’s a fairy tale, Harry!”) They progressively get more mature, complex, deeper, and better with each volume. They have inspired a whole new generation to simply love to read, and have overtly taught them the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white. (And the discussion of God and religion, unlike White’s stories, are seemingly absent from Rowling’s pages. Without quite crossing the line into the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, it is reasonable at least to ask if this silence is a timid, covert commentary by Rowling? While a professed Christian herself, does she regard those beliefs as personal and to be kept discreet? Perhaps fundamentally unnecessary for the good society at large?) But in conjunction with that, the real genius of these tales is they serve as allegories of the current real world which has been and continues to struggle for social equality, antidiscrimination, and justice for all.
As a secular-humanist, that’s a cause I can stand behind. And I bow down to Rowling for having subtly and covertly influenced (perhaps) a whole younger generation to think this way—even if they are not fully aware of it yet, and while simultaneously being under the radar of those who are opposed to such social fairness.
Such is the advantage of metaphor and allegory. (There are disadvantages, too, like misinterpretation. But that’s a different story altogether.)
Don’t waste your time with the book Angels & Demons. See the movie instead.
BEAR IN MIND: SPOILERS AHEAD!
In 2003 or 2004 I remember walking into Barnes & Noble. Out front on display I saw a book that caught my eye: The Da Vinci Code.
Curious, I thought. Da Vinci? As in…Leonardo da Vinci? The great Renaissance artist, sculptor, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, and inventor? And now he’s associated with some…code? I picked it up. Thumbed through it. Fiction. With a cunning marketing name. Not so curious anymore.
Shortly after, however, I heard more—in conversation, on public radio, seemingly everywhere. All positive. Next thing I knew, little Opie Cunningham’s turning it into a feature-length movie starring Forrest Gump. Well damn, I thought, I’d better read it…lest I be left out.
So I did. And enjoyed it. ‘Twas suspenseful.
But the next question was how much of it was based on reality. Yes, the copyright page says, “All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” But Dan Brown, the author, placed a page in the front of the book headlined as “FACT.” Among those listed: the European secret society the Priory of Sion, with Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci listed among its more illustrious members. He ends this with, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Okay, so the characters are fictitious, but what about everything else? Are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections Brown makes in his story between the so-called facts…plausible?
I didn’t have enough free time to personally research all these questions. So I was grateful 60 Minutes did. At least they covered the biggest question, that of the authenticity of the Priory of Sion with those renowned members. I mostly trust 60 Minutes as good journalism because they have a track record of basically asking hard questions and expecting good evidence before they draw conclusions. So their conclusion? Well, admittedly they didn’t give a hard conclusion, more of an implication. Which was? The evidence for the existence of the Priory of Sion is not compelling.
I was satisfied with that. (I’m simplifying, of course, as I did a little independent research which verified this.) I felt a bit betrayed by Dan Brown and his publisher for misleading people with their “facts” since for something to be designated as such it should have extremely compelling evidence. But my betrayal was not deep as there are far greater slights in this world. I mostly see the book as what it really is: a work of fiction. And as such, it is a compelling, suspenseful read (which didn’t translate well to the big screen, says I, and the lion’s share of movie critics).
With all this in mind, it turns out Dan Brown wrote another novel with the same protagonist, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (a.k.a. Tom Hanks), called Angels & Demons. He actually wrote (or published) it in 2000—three years before The Da Vinci Code. (As such, it is technically not a “prequel” even though Brown seems to think so according to his 2006-edition “Dear Reader” page.) But now, nine years later, since it, too, is being made into a feature-length movie, again with the power duo of Howard and Hanks, it is growing in enormous popularity.
My dad read it before I did and told me that, in comparison to The Da Vinci code, it was “just as good,” but added it’s “more violent.” Excellent, I thought. So I finally read it this past month wanting to beat the movie. (I partly anticipated the same lackluster translation to the silver screen, but having now seen it, this is not the case, in my humble opinion, regardless of what the film critics are so-far saying. More on that later.)
Here’s my assessment on the literary quality:
Frankly, I think this is the kind of book that would largely be ignored if not for the hype surrounding a high-profile movie and a more popular book by the same author, which is exactly the scenario that has played out before our very eyes. I felt like I was reading the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. True, it is more violent, and true, it largely takes place in Rome rather than Paris, but the characters, the plot, the twists and turns, the surprises, the red herrings, and the all-around feel is rather similar. As such, the twists and turns were not so twisty and turny for me. The surprises were not much of a surprise. And the red herrings were not so red (or whatever red herrings are supposed to be.) What’s worse, the narration and dialogue at times were rather lame. Was it a total lousy read? Not totally. It was subtly different enough to be a tad suspenseful. I mean, it isn’t really the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. That’s just a rhetorical analogy I used because it had that ambiance. If you have not read The Da Vinci Code, though, then that’s not likely to be an issue for you. But the cheesy dialogue and narration should be.
And so should the fact that some of the story’s plot are highly suspect of their believability. Particularly a scene near the end where our hero Robert Langdon jumps out of a helicopter some two or three miles above Vatican City with only a windshield tarp clenched in his hands to slow his fall. A windshield tarp! Clenched in his hands! Seriously? He lands in the Tiber River and survives virtually unscathed. True, he is knocked silly and taken to a hospital. But within hours he comes to with no broken bones or any serious physical damage and goes about saving the world (or the Vatican) as if the fall had never occurred. AS IF IT HAD NEVER OCCURRED! (Thank the Lord this nonsense scene was excluded from the movie.) When I got to that point I realized the suspension of reality was being invoked much as it would have for such absurdly, unbelievable characters as the sequels to Rocky, Rambo, and every James Bond movie ever made. But that’s strictly an entertainment issue. Lots of persons enjoy absurd unbelievability (i.e. escapism) in their entertainment. I can, too, if the story is consistently unbelievable while remaining intriguing. But when the story vacillates between believability and unbelievability I find it blatantly, internally inconsistent and thus annoying. I enjoy my fiction the most when it’s as firmly entrenched in believability as is practical, from beginning to end. But that’s a personal artistic choice.
Now my assessment on the fact claims:
Yes, Angels & Demons is a work a fiction. But once again (though actually the first time since this came out before The Da Vinci Code) Dan Brown and his publisher have added a page headlined as “FACT,” in which he talks about the international science institute CERN making antimatter that could conceivably become “the most deadly weapon ever made.” And there is a proceeding page titled “AUTHOR’S NOTE” in which Brown claims that, “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations). They can still be seen today. The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.”
Regardless of the personal artistic choice of wanting believability or unbelievability of the characters, their dialogue, and their actions in this story, the next big questions that arise in my mind (and I suspect arise in many readers’ minds) are: are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections the author makes in this story between these facts …plausible?
After all, his story does take place in real-life locations: Harvard in Massachusetts, CERN on the Franco-Swiss border, and Vatican City and Rome in Italy. He does not list those locales as facts. Why should he? Most persons already recognize them as such. So when Brown goes on to describe these places in finer detail and what goes on inside, the demarcation line of what is real and what is not is blurred. I suspect this was deliberate. It fuels more interest in the story. It reminds me of how the producers of The Blair Witch Project marketed the movie in such a way as to guide the general unsuspecting public into thinking this fictional movie was, just maybe, possibly, a documentary under the guise of fiction. When people hear phenomenal stories and are led to believe they are, just maybe, possibly, real, it sparks enormous interest, and hence generates great financial profits.
So what is real and what is not? The movie, fortunately, really tightened up the story and cut out a lot of the crap that is in the book. But the movie, alas, still had to leave in the two biggest gripes I have with the book’s fact claims. I don’t blame the movie makers for keeping these, though. If they’d cut those out as well then it would not have been Angels & Demons but a totally different story altogether. So while there are dozens of gripes I have with the book, to keep this brief, I’ll focus mostly on the main two that remained in the film.
First, the issue of CERN, antimatter, and potentially the “most deadly weapon ever made.”
The quick answer is: Yes, CERN (or the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, a.k.a. the European Center for Nuclear Research) is a real science facility with a real particle accelerator (the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, even though it is not yet fully operational), and yes, CERN has created antimatter (as well as has other science research institutes such as Fermilab in Chicago). But no, there is no bomb or even the reasonable potential for one. The production of antimatter is so slow it would take an estimated several billion—billion, with a ‘b’—years to create enough to have the energy of a typical hydrogen bomb, of which several thousand already exist. Considering the Universe itself has been around for about 13 to 14 billion years then we’re quite safe from antimatter bombs for now. To put it in another perspective, if CERN or Fermilab could somehow assemble all the antimatter ever created (which they can’t) and annihilate it with matter, it would be just enough energy to power one incandescent light bulb for a handful of minutes. Turns out CERN was kind enough to dedicate a page on their website to illuminate on these very issues brought up by the novel.
Second, the issue of this claim that “The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.” Well, this is a very general statement commingled with some very specific details in the actual story. Where is the line of reality and fiction drawn? Technically, Brown is correct that the Illuminati is factual. But his specific description of them in the story and who some of the illustrious members are (Galileo Galilei, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) does not seem to be rooted in fact. What’s more, Brown fails to clarify that there are multiple organizations who call themselves “Illuminati,” most of which are not associated with one other.
Without going into detail so I can sum things up, I will quickly add some bullet points of other gripes I have as well as potential issues I question:
· Brown’s claim that “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual.” Entirely?
· The hermetically sealed vaults at the Vatican archives.
· As an advocate of science, though I’m glad popular attention is being brought to CERN because of this story, I felt Brown’s narration and dialogue describing that community was in places inaccurate and sloppy. (I’m glad, though, Ron Howard actually filmed parts of the movie at CERN cleaning up some of Brown’s inaccurate descriptions of the place, as well as making the scientists and scholars seem more the part).
· I was particularly agape in astonishment at Brown having scientists make the non sequitur logical fallacy by claiming the creation of antimatter proves the existence of the Christian God (or any religious “God” for that matter).
· Brown’s description of the placebo effect is grossly exaggerated and based on urban legends.
· His claim that the Swiss Guard uniforms were designed by Michelangelo is a common misconception as the current uniforms were designed by Jules Repond in 1914.
· His astonishment at the Illuminati ambigrams should not be so astonishing, especially considering they are not actual Illuminati symbols but designs his typographer friend John Langdon created (and who the protagonist Robert Langdon was named for).
· His use of the HSCT (High Speed Civil Transport) is based on a NASA conceptual aircraft that ended the year before the novel was published. The concept plane was designed for Mach 2, not Mach 15 as in the book.
And if I put more effort into it I’m sure I could come up with others. But I’ll leave it at that.
Don’t waste your time with the book. But see the movie. (Pretty much the opposite of how I feel about The Da Vinci Code.) Yes, the story is basically the same. But the movie-makers took the liberty to make some changes by basically removing some of the absurdities, re-writing more convincing dialogue, then executing it with fine acting, beautiful cinematography, and apropos music. Other than the big problems with the antimatter and the existence of the Illuminati’s Path of Illumination (and maybe a few others), the movie feels more believable. I probably wouldn’t put it in my top 50, but it was worth watching.
If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island What Three Books Would You Want With You? And, If You’ll Indulge Me, My Three Considered Responses
I have heard (or read) this question (or some variation of it) presented over the years. I vaguely remember reading somewhere or other, about a decade or so ago, that the famed literary critic Harold Bloom’s answer was, as best as memory serves, 1) the King James Version of the Bible, 2) The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and, 3) uh, something else (I can’t remember what, but he may have said three was a wild card), in that order. I suppose that would be the typical answer for a learned man of letters such as Mr. Bloom , and so naturally I more or less adopted it as my own. Not that someone has ever posed that question to me—because no one ever has; or that I’m a learned man of letters—because (no matter how I wish it so) my lack of any degree says I’m not; but I tentatively accepted his erudite response as my own, or at least in my own mind I did.
Then in 2007 upon listening to a podcast of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe whilst Dr. Steven Novella and The Rogues were interviewing another famed literary (not to mention political and religious) critic, Christopher Hitchens, I heard that question offered again, to Mr. Hitchens. For a split second I partly expected him to say something along the lines of Mr. Bloom’s answers. Hitchens, however, is no Bloom. Somewhat to my surprise he didn’t name any book and flat out rejected the question by suggesting if he was to accept such a premise he would not actually be choosing for himself but rather have the choice forced upon him.
In complete disclosure of honesty I don’t entirely understand Mr. Hitchens’ point, but in fairness he was put on the spot and answered extemporaneously and with haste as he is so apt to do. Regardless of my understanding, or lack thereof, though, it was the way he said what he did that sounded clever to me. What’s more, it got me to re-think the brain exercise more ponderously and to perhaps alter my own position should such a theoretical query ever be posed to me in the flesh.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
First response: a notebook. Indeed, a notebook; that is to say, a personal computer laptop, with the understanding that all necessary peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements accompany it; it is in new or like-new condition, with a fully charged battery with the ability to be re-charged, with unlimited high-speed broadband access to the Internet, as well as the costs of all on-line subscriptions and purchases fully covered, and so forth. (I suppose a fingerprint ID scanner would be unnecessary in such conditions.) Now, I imagine my having this notebook as my only book on this desert isle is something the average questioner could easily agree to; but what of all these peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements? It’s a modest request. One wouldn’t deny a fellow human being their auxiliary bookmark to go along with what few hardback or paperback yarns they poses on this barren islet would one? The absurdity of answering my analogous hypothetical with a denial doesn’t warrant one more negatively-charged neuron from firing off all helter-skelter, so I hastily move along with my pleasant and orderly thoughts unfettered. With this advanced technological book alone at my disposal I would have not but a mere one (or three) tomes in my clutches, but all the world’s libraries, past, present, and, to some extent, future (though I’m not quite sure how this would work). I would ideally have authorization to not only the digital repositories of any and all e-books, but audio books…or I could even pen my own books. Furthermore, I could have access to periodicals, motion pictures, stills, music, satellite television, news, blogs (of course), podcasts, streaming radio, video games, on-line social networking, weather reports, water temperatures, trading of stocks & bonds, and, most importantly, the ability to book a reservation with some travel agency or the nearest Coast Guard or Navy to extricate me off this unfashionable ocean-encircled wasteland.
Second response: If I’m to take this question literally and I was actually thrust into such an undesired situation, the furthest thing from my mind would be printed “books.” Oh, I do love to read books, but not when life and death are on the line. Pursuing any literary interests in such a socio-economic environment as a godforsaken desert island would have to be put on temporary hiatus, it seems to me. I would most likely spend my time somewhere between acting out Tom Hanks’ character in the film Cast Away and trying to recollect Bear Grylls survival techniques from the Discovery Channel’s TV show Man vs. Wild: oh, I don’t know, basically trying to keep Mr. Death in my pocket by scavenging, foraging, and hunting for food & drink, erecting shelters, protecting my emaciating body from nature’s harsh elements, guarding my atrophying tissues from harmful flora & fauna, and attempting any reasonable means to escape this uncivilized desolate hell-hole while simultaneously remaining unharmed, unscathed, and intact, if at all possible.
Third response: I would think that one posing this question doesn’t mean for the responder to take it literally anyway. It’s a metaphorical inquiry. What the questioner really wants to know is what is so-and-so’s all time favorite book or books; that is to say, what book or books does so-and-so enjoy so much that, given ample leisure time, he or she is willing—desirous even—to read it/them over and over, again and again, and hence might be a possible source of entertainment or mental stimulus the questioner may consider to devote personal time towards during a rare moment of quiet respite. It’s actually a question the recipient ought to be flattered to have been asked as the asker is curious to know what the receiving party’s tastes are on such sublime intellectual matters as “literature.”
In truth, I don’t think such a singular text ever has or ever will exist for me. I’ve read the KJV Bible cover-to-cover…once. I enjoyed it (or portions of it)…once. Don’t know that I’d want to enjoy it cover-to-cover again though. I mostly think of the Bible as a reference book these days anyway, something to look up quotes or verses in as one uses the dictionary to look up words in; and the chilling thought of being water bound on a desert island with only a dictionary to peruse is, well…okay, actually, come to think of it, to a self-described philologist that might not be too bad of a situation, especially if we’re talking about the voluminous OED…on-line. But I digress. I’ve read Shakespeare. I enjoy Shakespeare immensely. However, I would get weary of reading his verse and dialogue repeatedly with nothing else. To wit, there are a great many novels, mythologies, religious texts (or did I enumerate that one already?), histories, textbooks, children’s stories, biographies, fables, philosophical musings, and scientific hypotheses that I’ve both casually and pensively contemplated the words thereof from cover-to-cover…once.
I’ve attempted reading some books twice but find myself asking why I’m doing this and if my time so devoted is truly necessary and if perhaps my precious few spare moments of personal contemplation and soul-searching could be devoted to more worthwhile pursuits such as reading a different book, preferably one I have not yet had the pleasure to crack. I don’t recall ever playing through on the third hole of any hardback or paperback. And as of now I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading thrice or more…come to think of it I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading twice or more.
But if one was to directly ask my recommendation for a pleasant piece of fiction or non to gaze thoughtfully at, I may retort with a follow-up such as what one’s general interests tend to be or what genre one is thinking of delving into. I may also be so inclined to respond with whatever I happened to have on my nightstand at the time the question was presented. For instance, I just finished reading (“listened” technically, on my iPod, in audio book format, while driving and jogging and going about life’s limitless activities in full efficiency mode) a P.G. Wodehouse 1917 short-story collection entitled The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories. I found it absolutely delightful. I would gladly suggest it to another if asked (or even without being asked), especially if one was looking for a WWI-era romantic comedy, and who isn’t? But I have little to no desire to read it again. Well, maybe a slight desire; it was rather titillating. Regardless, my personal druthers is to move on to novelties. Reading a book for my first time excites my person. Reading the same printed and bound writings over and over sounds tedious.
Of course as I write this, I’m reminded that when I was a lad of, oh, ten or so, I would walk home from school, fix a grilled-cheese sandwich, then pop our video of Star Wars into the now antiquated VHS player to watch the 1977 space opera from opening to closing credits; and I repeated this monotonous activity near daily for the course of three semesters. I would guesstimate I watched Episode IV: A New Hope that year alone maybe a hundred times, give or take. What can I say? I was young, naïve, and caught up in the culture of my generation, hence I hadn’t yet learned the tedium of redundancy. My interests and desires were different in those days. What’s more, this was a “movie” (some say a six-part documentary expounding upon the secrets of the Jedi), not a “book.” Books typically take a great deal more time and effort.
As content as I am to read books, I take pleasure in other interests beyond books as well. (See previous paragraph.) As such, I think I’ll stick with my first response for now. It’s the variety, the possibility of expanding my mind, the constantly learning new ideas and exploring new frontiers, of growing and progressing, which keeps me satisfied. To be sure, to have the liberty to do this by reading sans constraints, and also by limitless means other than reading, is simply the only way to go, in my humble opinion.